Self-Care for the Junior Army Officer

By: Taryn Hagerman, Jordon Swain, Angela Yarnell
self care

Stress is an occupational hazard of serving in the Army.  And being a leader in charge of others under stress, is arguably even more stressful.  Talk to anyone who wears (or has worn) the uniform and you can hear stories of people leaving the service due to burn out, relatively young men and women suffering heart attacks, and a much too high number of friends with stressors that are linked to negative outcomes, to include suicide.   Yes, service in the Army can be stressful.  Throw in the current COVID-19 crisis and it’s doubtful you will find anyone donning the uniform who says they are without stress.  But there are ways to help manage the stress, like regularly practicing self-care.  

Hear us out.  Self-care isn’t some new-age fad reserved for those who “can’t hack it.”  As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, self-care “…comes in many shapes and sizes, but done consciously and consistently, it gives you the tools you need to become a better leader and a happier, healthier person.”[1]  This article is intended to share concrete self-care tips that junior officers can use to help themselves (and those they lead) manage the stressors of their chosen profession more effectively. 

Why do an article, you may ask?  Self-care sounds easy, right?  First, self-care is more than just eating right, getting enough rest, and exercising (although those are three BIG components of self-care).  Second, doing those things (and other elements of self-care) are often easier said than done—especially in a hierarchical, macho organization like the Army where junior officers often find themselves overseeing multiple missions in support of several different people, and where “taking a knee” is often frowned upon. 

Changing your mindset

It is critical that leaders eradicate the negative stigma associated with self-care.  Self-care should not be viewed as “taking a knee” or a luxury.  On the contrary, ensuring you are healthy enough to perform your duties and take care of others is your job and the steps to get there need to be respected equally.

Viewing self-care as “maintaining your equipment” can help Soldiers make it a priority.  Self-care is what you do to maintain your health; it allows you to perform your duties as a leader.  Self-care is not selfish.  Much like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others on an airplane, the act of prioritizing your needs can be a selfless act of ensuring you are capable of helping others later because you have maintained your own wellness.  Too often, people are unwilling to take a break to refuel.  Yet, if you were to try driving your car without stopping to add gas or to conduct maintenance, you’d soon find yourself stranded in a broken-down vehicle.  Self-care is similar.  If done correctly, engaging in self-care can actually help ensure mission accomplishment by keeping you (and those who emulate you) “fully mission capable.”  

What is self-care?

Self-care is the conscious act of taking steps to promote your own health. There are four major elements to consider: 

  1. Mental.  Entails stimulating your mind and your intellect to keep yourself sharp. Mental self-care also involves doing things that help you stay mentally healthy.  Practicing self-compassion and acceptance, for example, help you maintain a healthier inner dialogue.
  2. Physical.  Promotes well-being of your body.
  3. Social.  Fosters and deepens relationships in your life.
  4. Spiritual.  Nurtures your spirit and allows you to think bigger than yourself.  Spiritual self-care does not have to be religious, although for some it is.  

Self-care involves all of these elements and one activity can support multiple domains.  You can think of these four components as legs of a large rectangular table.  You need all four to be strong or the table will topple.  This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to focus equally on all four components.  Some of you may have natural strengths or tendencies that make staying healthy in one (or more of these areas) relatively easy, while others may struggle in those same areas.  The point is, if you find stress is overwhelming you, you can use the above four areas to help focus your efforts as you practice self-care.

Tips for self-care in the Army

Now that you know what self-care is, and that it is important, how can you practice self-care as a junior Army officer?  Below are some tips we hope can help.  We want to note up front that every person is different.  These tips are not intended to prescribe a perfect “self-care regimen.”  Rather, they are meant to provide self-care examples we’ve employed or that we’ve seen others employ in the Army that have been helpful in managing stress and improving individual health.   An extra pro-tip:  look for what we call “win-wins.”  These are activities that help you practice multiple types of self-care simultaneously. For example, running with a friend can serve to combine a physical self-care activity with a social one.  Time is precious, so using that resource efficiently is a great way to help ensure you stay healthy.

Mental

  • This can include art, making crafts, building, designing, coloring, dancing, singing, or writing.  Anything that is expressive can be a powerful self-care tool.  Bonus points for tangible results because they naturally boost mood through a sense of accomplishment and pride in the results.
  • The Center for Junior Officers and DoD Reads are great resources.  But don’t only read about the military or leadership. You can read fiction (just ask Oprah, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates).[2]
  • Watch movies
  • Play games or solve puzzles
  • Maintain a healthy inner dialogue. Most of us say or think things to ourselves that we would never say to a friend or family member.  Why not give yourself the same kindness and love that you show others?

Physical – Working out doesn’t need to be the only way you practice physical self-care. 

  • Focus on nutrition. Eat breakfast and/or lunch – you’re busy, so if you need to combine this with other things like counseling or planning, go for it!  But if you can spare the time, enjoying solitude and time for reflection is also a valuable combination for self-care.
  • Engage in healthy exercise. Maybe PT is it.  But if you have an injury or a nagging issue, get creative.  There is no shame in hitting the gym and riding the bike.  Maybe take the time to energize your unit’s remedial or profile PT program.
  • Try a new activity like geocaching, skiing, or even golf. Learning about new sports or physical activities can also help you in your mental self-care.
  • Get a pet (but check with your significant other or roommates first!). Pets have been shown to help reduce blood pressure and stress![3] Pets can also help you get more exercise.  And time at the dog park may help with the social aspect of your health too.
  • Take a vacation. The Army provides 3-4 day weekends almost every month when you’re not deployed.  And you earn leave days every month.  Use these periods to disconnect from work and relax.  While it’s both tempting and easy to spend this time binge watching Netflix or playing video games, try to devote some or most of this time to things that bring you fulfillment.
  • Get enough sleep.[4] Getting good sleep is essential for performance and can reduce your stress levels.  Adults should get between 7-10 hour of sleep at night.  In the military, getting this amount of sleep can be challenging due to mission demands.  Leaders need to prioritize sleep for themselves and their teams (over other activities, like socializing, or playing video games).  The negative effectives of insufficient sleep can be avoided by:  planning for periods of restricted sleep; using caffeine responsibly; and taking advantage of strategic sleep opportunities a.k.a. naps.  Finally, if you are not able to get enough sleep at night, consider sleeping for short periods when the opportunity arises.  Like caffeine use, the timing of naps should not affect your ability to sleep at night, so mid-morning or early afternoon naps are often best.[5]

Social – This can be tough, especially as you get older and have more responsibilities at home.  

  • Take a trip with your fellow Junior officers!
  • Organize a “LT lunch” once a week – share your successes and failures, nurture relationships!
  • Join an affinity group like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
  • Combine social activities with other domains. For example, attending group workouts like CrossFit with friends would support both physical and social domains.  Or you could combine with spiritual self-care by finding fellowship at a place of worship or starting a study group.

Spiritual

  • Use chaplains
  • Seek periods of solitude[6] – maybe with that vacation time.  It’s also OK to eat by yourself. 
  • Connect with nature
  • Volunteer
  • Meditate or follow a guided meditation. These are excellent methods for reforming the neural pathways in your brain toward paths that allow you to notice more and react intentionally.[7]  If you find yourself acting impulsively or with a “short fuse,” practicing mindfulness consistently can help strengthen your ability to pause between a gut reaction and a chosen action.  This ability is the mark of a strong person and leader.
  • Journal[8]
  • Practice gratitude. This is seriously a game-changer.  If you’re trying to help shift your mindset away from always finding problems and issues, toward seeing the value added by even our toughest challenges, gratitude is one of the easiest and fastest ways.  Practicing gratitude has been linked to a wide range of health benefits including, improving mental resilience, self-esteem, sleep, and reducing aggression.[9]  Practicing can be as simple as writing a daily list of things you are grateful for, though if you’re looking for different ways to practice, you can find those in a quick Internet search.  For example, writing a thank you letter is never out of style, and can likely touch on every domain of self-care.

These are only a few of the countless ways to practice self-care.  Everyone is different.  A Cadet may have a great deal of mental stimulation from attending rigorous classes, but may be neglecting social or physical elements by staying up too late and studying most of the time.  A married Captain may be getting enough physical self-care at morning PT, but may be too busy after work or on the weekend to engage in spiritual or social self-care. 

Taking inventory of your own needs and experimenting with activities is your next mission.  Remember, you’re working to maintain your “equipment,” so you must accurately assess what you’re low on before you can refuel properly.  If your gas tank is full, but you’re out of oil, trying to add gasoline is not going to help, so focus on specific aspects of self-care you believe you may be running low on.  Be deliberate in planning and scheduling your self-care activities.  Some people choose to set alarms or calendar reminders until they have formed a habit.  Do whatever you need to help you prioritize your health.

There’s one more thing that can help: become comfortable saying “no.”  We know this can be hard.  But devoting all of your time and energy to the requests of others limits the time you have for yourself and your needs.  Yes, assisting a friend with a move might help with your social and spiritual health, but not if it’s taking you away from your family for the fifth day in a row and means you’re going to have several other needs or requirements go unmet.  Like the oxygen mask example earlier, you need to ensure you take care of yourself before you can effectively help others.  Getting comfortable saying “no” can help you in your self-care journey.

Creating a culture that values self-care

OK, one more point to consider.  Not only is managing your own stress important, but it is also important to help those you lead recognize and manage their stress.  The unit leader clearly impacts the well-being and performance of those they lead.  Research shows that leaders who focus on managing stress, increasing sleep, and prioritizing mental health have a positive impact on their units.  Therefore, creating a culture that encourages self-care is a leader’s responsibility.  So, how can you be this type of good leader?   Here are some ideas:

  • Proudly model effective self-care behaviors . Don’t sneak around or hide.  Talk about it!  Share with those around you that you’re attending a medical appointment (you don’t have to share the details, but you can communicate you’re going to sick call or in for a check-up).  Discuss ways in which you practice self-care and the benefits you have experienced. 
  • Encourage self-care. Ask your subordinates during counseling about their self-care plan.  You may even tell them to come to the session prepared to talk about it (among other subjects as part of an organized, useful developmental session).  By asking, you’re showing that it’s an expectation to have and practice a plan and that it should be a priority for them.  The answers will also help you learn about your Soldiers and identify possible signs to help you notice when they let their self-care take a backseat for too long.

If you work for a leader who doesn’t give you the time or who doesn’t value self-care, that is wildly unfortunate.  But, know that this will not always be true.  Although being a leader is often difficult, learning from leadership that has failed you in some areas can be a powerful tool for your own development.  If you grow from this adversity and use it to drive important changes when it’s your time to lead, then you’re absolutely doing something right.  Odds are, you’ll always have a boss, so understand that you need to take care of yourself so that you can act as the buffer between your boss and those who you are in charge of.  If you feel passionate enough about making changes to support a culture of self-care at your unit, consider writing an information or persuasive paper for your leadership to detail the value added to teams through self-care regimens.

Conclusion

We’ve all heard it:  Mission first.  People always.  Practicing self-care can help you realize this goal.  Self-care means taking steps to ensure you remain healthy and able to effectively perform your duties as a leader.  It means modeling behaviors that keep your Soldiers healthy and able to do their jobs.  It is possible to build a culture that values self-care while also encouraging hard work and elite performance.  By engaging in self-care, you are taking care of yourself, taking care of your people, and ensuring the mission is able to get done.

You can find more information on self-care and other ways of increasing performance and resilience at https://www.hprc-online.org/.

If you enjoyed this article, you may like How Deployment Prepared Me For COVID-19 Isolation.

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Taryn Renee Hagerman, LCSW, is an active duty Captain in the Medical Service Corps.  She currently serves as a Behavioral Health Officer in the 85th Medical Detachment Combat Stress Control, 9th Hospital Center, 1st Medical Brigade, at Ft. Hood, where she divides her time between clinical care, outreach, and training.  Combat Stress Control units specialize in preventative and restorative services aimed to maintain Soldier readiness amidst combat, operational, and daily stressors.

Jordon Swain is an active duty Lieutenant Colonel and the Director of the Center for Junior Officers.  He holds a Ph.D. in Organizations and Management from Yale University and a MBA from the Wharton School.  LTC Swain has published on multiple topics related to leader development and is slowly but surely learning how to engage in self-care…his knees and his daughters are thankful.

 Angela Yarnell, PhD is an active duty Major and Army Research Psychologist who has served as the Deputy Branch Chief of Behavioral Biology and Chief of the Sleep Research Center in the Center for Military Psychology and Neuroscience Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Her research emphasis is psychophysiology and she has investigated the topics of stress and resilience.  MAJ Yarnell is currently the Deputy Professor of Military Science and Assistant Professor of Military and Emergency Medicine at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD where she is responsible for the university-level leader and military professional development program.

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[1] Neale, P. (2020). Serious leaders need self-care too.  Harvard Business Review.  https://hbr.org/2020/10/serious-leaders-need-self-care-too

[2] https://www.inc.com/dustin-mckissen/reading-fiction-will-improve-your-leadership-skills-just-ask-jeff-bezos-bill-gates-oprah.html

[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-having-a-pet-is-good-for-your-health

[4] Swart, T. Sleep your way to the top.  MIT Executive Blog. https://executive.mit.edu/blog/sleeping-your-way-to-the-top

[5] https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/making-the-most-of-a-short-nap

[6] Kethledge, R. M., & Erwin, M. S. (2017). Lead yourself first: Inspiring leadership through solitude. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

[7] Schulte, B. (2015).  Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain.  The Washington Post.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/

[8] https://hbr.org/2017/07/the-more-senior-your-job-title-the-more-you-need-to-keep-a-journal

[9] Morin, A. (2014).  Seven scientifically proven benefits that will motivate you to give thanks year-round.  Forbes.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round